It feels like we’ve been in Italy forever. Is it our home now? After leaving Lipari, the place where it all began, we headed to our Italian finale: Palermo.
Palermo is the capitol of Sicily. The city feels like Italy-in-the-raw and it’s grittier than we expected – which of course is a good thing. The whole place has a deep sense of faded grandeur and crumbling glory. Palermo’s dense city streets have two millennia’s worth of buildings from the Romans, Arabs, Spanish, and Italians — all crammed together in a bizarre but captivating architectural environment. The narrow streets are buzzing with classic ‘Italian Stereotypes’: sharp tonged kids, swarthy men in impeccably tailored suits, and ancient nonnas going to weekday mass. (side-bar: I saw a swarthy well-suited man throw-up dramatically whilst two nonnas fanned him energetically and a disinterested shop keeper splashed buckets of water over the vomit; I will forever replay this scene in my head when I think of Palermo.)
One of the most fascinating legacies of Sicily’s very multi-cultural past is a collection of nine loosely contemporary structures collectively referred to as the ‘Arab and Norman’ churches. Designated as UNESCO World Heritage sites, these structures are super weird but very cool architectural Frankensteins dotting Sicily. After the Norman conquest of Sicily in the 1000’s, the vanquished Arabs were kindly asked to build some churches in an Arabesque style (or so the story goes). The result is quite odd but interesting, and provides an all too rare historical example of Christian and Islamic collaboration. These churches have mosque-like domes and minarets, Moroccan style inlayed floors, and over-the-top gold Byzantine era mosaics adorning the interior walls. It’s a schizophrenic vibe but somehow it works.
I was pretty impressed with Palermo’s number and diversity of architectural gems. In addition to the cool Arab and Norman sites, we heard about a tiny museum that houses Italy’s largest collection of old tiles. My interest was piqued and I emailed the museum to arrange a visit. Tucked away in an old house on the outskirts of Palermo’s old city, the Museum of Tiles- Stanze al Genio was an amazing collection. The tiles are displayed in a private home and an almost-scarily enthusiastic caretaker showed us around. This guy LOVES tiles – LOVES them! The collection has tiles from the 1700s to the modern day, and it’s really incredible to see how modern some of the older tiles look. You get a sense of Italian design’s influence on many movements of the 20th century, from Art Nouveau to Art Deco to the Modernist movement. I have a newfound appreciation for the Italian design aesthetic and I think even Jeff enjoyed himself (a teeny bit) at the tile museum.
More Street Food!
We loved the street food in Naples, so Palermo seemed like a wonderful opportunity for a culinary encore. It turns out that while some of the street food is excellent, there’s also some street food that is – how do I say this diplomatically? – gross. I don’t really ‘do’ organ meat, and a big juicy liver ‘n lung sandwich isn’t for me (though Jeff was a champ on this one). And grilled intestines? I’ll eat it but I’m not happy about it. I have to say, though, the grossness was part of the fun and we ended up loving the tour so much we did it twice.
There were some gastronomic hits in addition to the misses. Arancinas, which are basically fried balls of risotto, are a fabulous find. We had some superb arancinas filled with eggplant, mozzarella, and parma ham. We also had lovely cheese (how could this not be great) and fantastic seafood. My favorite was an octopus and potato salad with like half a bottle of olive oil on it. So. Freaking. Good. Italians do a good desert too, and we ate an ethereal pistachio granitas (basically a super fancy super good slushy).
On our last day in Palermo we decided to trek out to the Capuchin Catacombs… and it was spooky as hell. Most catacombs house skeletons and various relics, but the Capuchin Catacombs in Palermo house nearly 1,300 mummified corpses in addition to 7,000 run of the mill skeletons. Interred between 1599 and 1920, the mummies are hung from the walls wearing their own clothing and holding a placard of their name and date of death. I didn’t make it past the first room, but Jeff went all the way in. There is a really sad and spooky children’s section, and even a little girl named Rosalia Lombardo who was actually taxidermied. I don’t like this one bit.
The official story says that in the 1500s a handful of Capuchin monks died in an epidemic and were interred in a cave near the monastery. After some period of time, the remaining monks returned to collect the skeletons of their deceased brethren only to find that the bodies had been completely preserved. Miracle of miracles!!! To celebrate, the monks decided to mummify all subsequent monks and various members of the community as well. The unofficial story, however, is that someone learned embalming techniques from some Peruvians in the late 1500’s and decided to go crazy with their new found skill. Why let your embalming techniques go to waste?
Thus ended our (seemingly eternal) time in Italy. After a week in Palermo, we took a really weirdly designed train to Catania for an early morning flight to Malta. Farewell Italy!